East-West Dialogue

25th July 2006 (Last Updated July 25th, 2006 18:30)

The Chinese outbound market could help the long-term fortunes of the European travel industry. But only if it can adapt its proposition to Chinese tastes, David Brown, VP of sales operations at Gullivers Travel Associates, reports.

East-West Dialogue

According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, despite terrorist attacks, competition from other destinations and a strong pound, international visitor numbers to the UK increased in 2005, with spending hitting a high of
£14bn.

This is welcome news for the UK tourism industry, and the trend could be set to accelerate further, especially with the predicted growth in inbound tourism from emerging markets. China, in particular, offers an exciting opportunity for the UK and
Europe.

The Chinese economy is starting to boom; recent Chinese Government statistics reveal annual economic growth of 10%. People are now starting to travel much more, both domestically and internationally, providing the European and UK travel
industry with a real opportunity to attract their business.

About 17 million Chinese currently travel abroad each year, a figure that, according to the World Tourism Organisation, is expected to soar to 100 million by 2020. The granting of Approved Destination Status (ADS) to the UK in 2005 means Chinese
citizens are now able to travel as tourists to the UK.

Gullivers Travel Associates (gta) first brought Chinese tourists to France and Germany in 1998, with other Western European countries following shortly afterwards.

This has been further simplified by the Schengen Agreement, whereby non-European visitors are granted travel to 15 European countries on one visa.

However, if we are to get it right, we need to fully understand and cater to the very specific tastes of the Chinese market, and we need to start immediately.

Between 1 August and 31 December 2005, gta brought an average of 12 tour groups from China to the UK every month. So far in 2006 it has arranged tours to all European countries for approximately 300 groups.

The UK is not currently part of the Schengen Agreement, but the need to purchase a separate, more expensive UK visa is not proving to be the barrier anticipated.

So, what steps must the UK travel industry take to ensure that the UK is the number one destination for a large proportion of these new travellers, and that it continues to attract rising numbers of visitors within the rest of Europe?

gta was honoured to host the first ADS group of Chinese tourists following the change in the UK visa rules. It had only three weeks to arrange the trip for two groups of 40, one from Beijing and one from Shanghai. What we learned from that trip is
that this audience knows what it likes and likes what it knows.

Not surprisingly, with more disposable income and growing interest in European culture, history and shops, Chinese tourists are keen to visit our continent. Add to this a strong desire for designer goods, especially those with a British pedigree such
as Clarks and Burberry, and a culture that encourages gift and souvenir buying, and it is easy to see why the UK is proving such an attractive destination.

gta is seeing a significant increase in the number of Chinese wanting to visit the UK. However, a UK visa can cost £50 (plus a £15 facilitation fee) and take up to three weeks to obtain, which means that flights and travel itineraries are
often finalised just days before travel.

Compare this with a Schenghen visa, which costs just £27 for three months’ multiple entry and is much easier to obtain. In our estimation, simplifying the process would lead to almost double the number of tourists – with an
equivalent increase in revenue for UK business.

BROADENING THE ITINERARY

A typical itinerary takes in London (including Windsor), Cambridge, York, Edinburgh, the Lake District, Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford, usually by private coach or minibus, accompanied by a bilingual tour escort.

Alternatives to the usual must-see places should be promoted, especially for second-time visitors – perhaps Warwick Castle or the lochs of Scotland.

However, the Chinese have their own preferences, and the itinerary should also include a quick stop at Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate, a trip to see Chinese antiquities at the British Museum and a visit to the Clarks shoes outlet at Bicester
Village, just outside Oxford.

“Several schools and colleges are offering Mandarin classes, recognising that the next generation of employers and employees will work more closely with the Chinese market.”

What we do know is this: Chinese tourists rarely take public transport, even in London; they want to see the UK’s major cities; they want to visit Royal palaces and castles, such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle; they eat almost
exclusively in Chinese restaurants; and they want plenty of time to shop – at famous department stores and out-of-town outlets.

In terms of accommodation, the Chinese prefer large modern hotels with spacious rooms, which can be hard to find in many UK city centres, especially London.Finding such a hotel that is also prepared to offer small groups of guests noodles and rice
porridge at breakfast and has at least one Mandarin speaker on its reception staff presents an even sterner test. However, if the UK is to maximise this opportunity, these challenges need to be addressed.

Unlike most countries, where holidays are taken according to work schedules, school term dates or even weather patterns, in China people tend to travel at two particular times of the year: Chinese New Year and Golden Week in the autumn. As these fall
outside the busy summer season, it is a little easier to secure accommodation and transport bookings, plus attractions are less busy.

Our children already have a head start on us; several schools and colleges are offering Mandarin classes, recognising that the next generation of employers and employees will work more closely with the Chinese market.

Chinese New Year saw Chinatowns across Europe buzzing with excitement at the arrival of the Year of the Dog, and this year could also herald the beginning of an exciting era of opportunity for the European travel industry.